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How-to Illuminate a Shadow: Present Nations Grapple with Painful Pasts

Elie Wiesel said, “Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.” Recently, a number of states are recognizing this truth with regard to past genocides – and trying to reconcile the shadow. Controversy has, naturally, ensued over the best way to do that.

In Germany, a high-profile copyright case has brought up the question: is Germany ready for Mein Kampf?

A British publisher, Peter McGee, had hoped to publish excerpts of the book in his magazine, “Zeitungszeugen,” or, “Newspaper Witness,” in which he prints and distributes Nazi newspapers from 1933-45. McGee saw the publication as a contemporarily necessary “unmasking” of the “abyss of Hitler’s crude ideas.” Bavaria -which holds exclusive printing privileges on the book until 2015- saw it as a copyright infringement, as did the Bavarian court. Germany, though, saw it as a painfully reflective question: can we cope?

Traditionally, “Mein Kampf” had been kept well under wraps in Germany, though no laws prevented its distribution. Attitudes have been changing, however, and fewer people are objecting to making the book more widely available. Wide publication of the book would, of course, be a means of education, a way of dealing with the “shadow” of the past by “unmasking” Hitler’s hideous ideas for what they are, and avoiding repetition of past atrocities by illuminating them in the present.

However, the November uncovering of a German neo-Nazi ring, responsible for the murders of nine Germans of Greek and Turkish descent between 2000-2006 and supported by a wide, underground network, makes one wonder: would “Mein Kampf” be read educationally – in the wrong way? The government allegedly knows of about 26,000 far-right extremists. Although this number does not represent a large percentage of an 82 million person population, it is still enough to cause pause. Furthermore, earlier in January, a two-year study was released “showing that one in five Germans still harbored anti-Semitic beliefs.”

Alexander Luckow, a spokesman for Peter McGee, illuminates everyone’s fear. “The danger is allowing right-wing people to sell it in bookshops with their modern commentary,” he said. “This is forbidden and it’s good . . . not only in Germany, this should be equal in other countries in Europe. Anti-Semitism is not confined to Germany. You look and it’s all around Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages.” Are such dangerous ideas best left to the shadows of self-inflicted censorship, where they can do no harm?

Even if this is the case, the option seems impossible. In an age where everyone can access any book, movie, or album at the push of a button, any person who wants to read the book has done so already. In order to deal with the possibility of a far-right extremist publication, however, historians have been preparing a scholarly edition, which could not be misconstrued as a call to arms. Still, some Jewish groups are content to limit wider publication at the present.

It is not only the Germans who are contemplating whether “hush-hush” is the best way to grapple with the past, though. About a month ago, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem wore the yellow stars and striped prison uniforms of Nazi Germany to protest “what they call their persecution by secular Israelis.” Partly in response to this, Israel’s Parliament has sped up the passage of a bill which “prohibits the use of all forms of the word ‘Nazi’ or similar-sounding words; epithets associated with Nazism, the Third Reich or any of ot’s leaders…[and] bans all photographs, drawings, sculptures and the like depicting a swastika or anything else that makes a definitive reference to Nazism.” Some believe that such a measure will ensure that the gravity of the past will not be treated frivolously, and that it will guard the memories of the deceased from casual disrespect. Others see the Bill as an abominable attack on the freedom of expression. Lila Margalit, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, explained: “it is precisely because of the importance and gravitas of the Holocaust that the attempt to dictate how and in what contexts it can be discussed is particularly egregious.” But could forced respect foster true respect?

Regarding freedom of speech, Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip of Erdogan, has argued that France is facing a “massacre of free thought.” This past Monday, the French Senate passed a law that would criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide. Turkey has responded in a fury, calling the legislation “racist” and forbidding the French military from landing and docking aircrafts and warships in their country.  All political and economic talks between the two countries have been suspended.  Although Turkey acknowledges that atrocities were committed, the country denies that  millions of Armenians were killed as a result of a systematic cleansing. Critics of the Bill accuse President Sarkozy of grasping for the votes of the country’s 500,000 French-Armenians. The math hardly works out, however, when one recognizes that signing the bill would involve losing the votes of 400,000 French-Turks.

Thus, the question of what to do with yesterday’s ideas is not as simple as one might have thought, and it is one that often conflicts with ideals of freedom of expression. It begs us to ask: how will tomorrow’s nations illuminate the shadows of our ideas today?


-Anna Roy

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